Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.
Ukraine. Afghanistan. Syria. These countries and others bring up images of war such as the remnants of explosions, bombed buildings, injured people, dead bodies, and homeless refugees. These images are disturbing for everyone. Parents may feel shocked, appalled, angry, and anxious about the future.
No matter how much parents try to shelter their kids, children will hear about wars and become confused and troubled by them. Young ones may see images of families being separated and worry that this situation could happen to them. Parents need to ensure that their children have the correct information so their kids can feel more secure.
How Parents Can Talk to Children About War
There are several things parents can do to respond to their children’s questions about war.
Manage Your Anxiety, Worry, and Stress
Children will be less anxious if mom and dad are calm and appear to be in control. Open discussions teach children how to deal with difficult emotions. Children look to their caregivers as examples of how they can deal with their own feelings and manage emotionally charged facts.
You should keep your emotions in check, even though you will also be upset and fearful because of conflict. Do not share your major fears such as the threat of nuclear or chemical warfare.
Answer In an Age-Appropriate Way
How do parents or caregivers explain that some countries drop bombs that kill innocent people? This example is one of the many issues parents may have to address. Information shared must be tailored to the child’s age, emotional maturity, and developmental level. The parents' words should be clear and easy to understand.
General facts can be shared starting when children are approximately ages four or five such as: “War can happen when people disagree with each other,” or “The purpose of war is to prevent people from doing bad things.” Younger children may be more curious than concerned and are not interested in gaining more knowledge about the situation.
Be Open and Honest
When children approach with questions, parents should encourage them to talk about the war so that they can assess what their children know and determine how their children feel about related topics. Possible sources of information may be teachers, their friends, or the media.
If you share your opinions, talk about your feelings about war in general. With older children, you can share your disagreement with acts of war and military aggression and explain how these actions go against your family values. Be careful not to target or stereotype a specific country or group of people to prevent children from becoming prejudiced.
Answer Questions Succinctly and Briefly
Do not go into a lot of details in addition to answering their queries. Parents should only share enough to provide a satisfactory response. Too many details can frighten and overwhelm kids, especially younger ones. Children are very perceptive and can tell if their parents are glossing over or omitting important information. Parents must be honest with their kids. Their offspring will feel more secure if they know the facts.
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Caregivers can ask children to repeat what the parents said so they are reassured that their kids understood what was said. If parents do not know some of the answers, they should ask for time to research the matter and follow up later.
Address Their Fears
If children do not have the facts, they may worry that they are not safe.
They need their parents’ reassurance that their parents are in control, will protect them, and know what to do in emergency situations. Children may need to be reminded that the war is far away and is no threat to them.
Limit Media Exposure to Graphic War Coverage
Limiting media coverage is challenging because news is everywhere: on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, social media newsfeeds, or smartphones. Parents need to assess how much information their kids can handle by considering their age and maturity.
If children report seeing news that bothers them, find out the sources of media coverage. Limit and monitor media exposure when possible. Some war coverage has images that are too graphic for younger kids to process. Parents should turn off the TV or computer when kids are around. Parents can watch some media coverage with adolescents and teens and discuss what they saw.
Do Helpful War-Related Activities
Find out ways that you and your children can support the victims of war. Your kids may want to make a card, pray for them, or donate money and items. Doing so teaches children to have compassion for others who are suffering. Children feel more in control if they feel they are helping in some way. Point out people in the past or currently are examples of kindness and acts of service during tough times.
Follow Up With Your Children
Encourage your kids to come to you anytime to discuss any concerns they may have. These talks also give you the opportunity to teach values such as the importance of compassion, communication, and getting along with others.
Young children have difficulty expressing their stress. Watch out for behavioral changes that show that children are stressing about war news such as:
- Becoming very clingy
- Trouble sleeping, nightmares
- Reverting to baby-like behavior such as thumb sucking and baby talk
- Expressing fears about death
- Are distressed by upsetting thoughts
- Being preoccupied with terrorism or war
- Struggling with anxiety
Anxious children may focus on gathering as much news as possible to manage their fears. Some children are more vulnerable to experiencing distress such as kids with mental health issues or the offspring of immigrant or refugee children. Parents should talk to their family doctor or pediatrician if they have concerns.
Adolescents and teens may start revealing their own opinions. Parents might disagree with them but should not argue with them. Instead, caregivers should talk about matters calmly without judgment and keep sharing the truth as they know it.
War is a difficult topic for everyone, especially for children. However, if parents maintain control over their emotions, they model coping skills for their children. Children can feel secure and less anxious if parents follow these steps.
How to Talk With Your Child About the War in Ukraine, healthychildren.org, David Schonfeld, MD
Your kids are asking about war. A psychologist explains how to answer, Atlantic Health System
Talking to Your Kids About War, verywellfamily.com, Amy Morin, LCSW
Tips for Talking to Kids about the War in Ukraine, Cleveland Clinic
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Carola Finch